For the majority of my life, I believed that the value of my experiences was directly linked to the people with whom and places wherein I experienced them. If I was angry it was because she pissed me off. If I had great sex it was because he was a good lover, if I had a good time out with my friends, it was because there was a very unique circumstantial cocktail that got created when this particular group of people came together to eat this carefully planned and crafted meal.
I spent a lot of time and energy trying to duplicate or avoid these situations, depending on whether I considered them positive or negative. I surrounded myself with happy people so I didn’t have to feel anger, I only gave a chance to guys who nailed sex with me on the first try, and I became a master chef and dinner party host as a means to feed off of and perpetuate the vibe that miraculously occurred in convivial family style eating amongst friends.
Rarely did it occur to me that *I* might have anything to do with any of this. As far as I knew, my life was playing out in a series of flukes, and the only control I had was in ensuring that my exposure to my environment was 100% in my control, lest I end up with a series of bad experiences that were totally out of my hands.
Anyone who has even remotely dabbled in the personal development industry has probably heard a lot about personal responsibility. It’s a concept that often gets addressed by teachers, mentors, or coaches who want to ensure full opt-in to telling students or clients a truth they may not yet be ready to hear. I cover the topic very early on in all of my coaching relationships, often times as early as the initial enrollment conversation as a means of getting buy-in to do the very thing I’ve been hired to do: shed light on my clients’ blind spots and teach them how to stay connected through the unearthing of parts of their hidden selves. This process can involve run-ins with any numbers of triggers, particularly if I do my job well, and I like to know that my clients will be willing to do the work to own the parts we discover together.
What is personal responsibility?
First, I’m going to tell you what it’s not. Personal responsibility is NOT self-blame. Personal responsibility is not about making ourselves wrong in order to deescalate an argument, though taking personal responsibility can and often does deescalate arguments; it *never* involves blame. It’s not about avoiding circumstances that feel bad, nor should it be used as a reason to stay in a dysfunctional or pathological relationship. It never includes the words “It’s my fault” or “I did it wrong,” particularly if used to rectify an uncomfortable situation, experience, or emotion.
It’s also not about taking too much responsibility, or taking responsibility for someone else’s actions, behaviors, negative feelings, or negative belief systems. Many of us grew up in homes where our parents instilled far too much responsibility on us as children. It was our job to make and keep our parents happy, to take care of and emotionally support our siblings, or maybe even to do explicitly adult things like contribute financially and laboriously toward providing food and shelter, or mediating and mitigating our parents’ disagreements. These sort of circumstances are not the responsibility of a child, but taking them on as children gives us a strong sense of *over* responsibility in adulthood, which is often referred to as rescuing in the therapeutic world.
Others among us still had the opposite experience. Our parents took full responsibility for not just our well-being and growth, ensuring our basic needs were met and that we had the tools to thrive in life, but also were responsible for our happiness, sadness, frustration, shame, indecision, ennui, etc, leaving us devoid of tools to take care of ourselves (especially emotionally and spiritually) as adults without help or intervention. The general expectation is then that other people can, should, and must take responsibility for us, because we can’t take care of ourselves. This sets us up for a lifetime of victim mindset, forever at the mercy of our circumstances.
Personal responsibility is a recognition that every single dynamic we find ourselves in is at least partially co-created by us, and for us. It’s a proverbial clearing of our side of the street, juxtaposed with a knowledge that it is actually NOT our job to change or worry about anyone else, and that any attempts to do so are in fact futile. It’s an active demonstration of knowing that the only thing we actually have control of in this gorgeously unpredictable world is our own response to the unfolding of reality.
What is reality? Reality is reality, and it is inherently value neutral. We use our minds to decide whether or not our perspective of reality is positive or negative. We then will go out and find validation of our positive or negative interpretation, and that is what has us feel justified in whatever reaction we have to an event. And we use personal responsibility to hold ourselves accountable for that interpretation.